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My Bloody Romania: The real Dracula's Castle
Wake up people, Leif's Un-Authorized, Tell-All, Myth-Busting, Ass-Kicking, Hyphenation-Extravaganza is about to begin.
I'm about to provide you with priceless information that will make you a star at your pub's next video trivia game and possibly get you laid – or at least second base out in the alley - depending on how much beer your victorious answer earns your team.
There are three sites in Romania that are billed as 'Dracula's Castle' in the interest of selling more undead-themed t-shirts and coffee mugs, but only one of them is where Vlad '?epe?' Dracula actually lived, passing his time scaring the living crap out of Turkish invaders during his reign as Prince of Wallachia.
Below are three pictures: 'Dracula castles' located at the Tihu?a (Borga) Pass, Bran and Poienari. Can you pick out the real Dracula's castle?
Let's get the no-brainer one out of the way first.
Picture Number 1, The 'castle' at the Tihuţa Pass, is nothing more than a tourist trap hotel, built in the early 1980s, to siphon just a few more dollars out of die-hard fans of the fictional Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', retracing the journey taken by protagonist Jonathan Harker. Never mind that the building is only 20 years old, it's unlikely that non-fictional Vlad Ţepeş ever set foot in this region, as it's clear on the other side of Transylvania, practically in Moldavia, hundreds of kilometers away from Wallachia where he ruled.
Picture Number 2, Bran Castle, is a more realistic option, what with the fairytale turrets, dramatic setting and the fact that it was actually standing when Vlad Ţepeş was beating a hasty retreat through the Transylvanian countryside, but this was not Dracula's home. It was built by Braşov Saxons in 1382. Ţepeş may have spent the night here after being chased out of his real pad by really pissed off Turks in 1462. More recently, it was home to Queen Marie from 1920 on and a summer chillout out zone for King Michael before the Communists removed him in 1947. In 2006, as part of a program to return property grabbed by the Communists, ownership of the castle was returned to its rightful heir: Dominic Habsburg, the grandson of Queen Marie, now a New York-based architect who immediately decided to cash out and sell the place. After Romania failed to get the funds together for a first-option offer, Habsburg placed the castle for sale to all comers. The castle was still on the market at the time of writing.
Picture Number 3, Poienari Citadel, is obviously the real home of Vlad Ţepeş, built by miserable, soon to be skewed, Turkish prisoners in 1459. Ţepeş had barely gotten comfortable before he was driven off by Turkish reinforcements in 1462. A large part of the structure fell down the mountain in 1888. What remains is a rather small cluster of head-high ruins, somewhat disappointing on their own, but enriched by the mountaintop setting and the 1,480 spirit-sapping stairs one needs to endure to access the site, which must have been a real bitch for those Turks to climb back when it was just a dirt path while loaded down with stones, bricks and buckets of mortar.
I'd been to Poienari Citadel once before during my LP research trip, but it was March. The mountain was somewhat fogged in and covered in snow, so my pictures didn't nearly capture the essence of the place.
After tutting at yet another unsightly pile of rubbish left by previous visitors at the base of the hill (via purchases made at nearby refreshments stands whose proprietors seemed perfectly content to let the garbage their dealings generated pile up to the heavens), the Little Vampire and I got started slowly plodding up the hill. Both of us being wretchedly out of shape, we rested often, while keeping our eyes on an idiotic family ahead of us that had opted to bring their dog on the trip, who was scampering around in the brush, causing dozens of mini-avalanches that bounced debris down the hill all around us.
Once at the citadel, we lingered, taking in the expansive view, snapping numerous gratuitous pictures of my butt and contemplating which hole was probably Vlad's toilet. Though it's awfully pretty on a clear day, there's really not much else to do.
The walk down was no easier, quadriceps burning and nearing the failure point much of the way. Gingerly easing our spasming legs back into the car, we headed a few minutes up the road to the Lake Vidraru Dam, a worthwhile stop if you're passing by if only to get a vertigo-inducing look over the side and, if you're none too comfortable with heights like I am, maybe gauge how far vomit can fall before vaporizing.
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet's Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more Romania trivia, hastily researched history and pictures ostensibly of tourist sites that happen to feature his tushie.